West eyes China to influence Burma's junta

Asian nations are critical, but they may not take strong action. China has long had a policy of noninterference.

Having violently suppressed last week's monk-led protests, Burma's military rulers are now trying to deflect international condemnation and calls for reform. How far they succeed in resisting while keeping a lid on further unrest could hinge on the stance of influential countries in Asia.

First among them, say Western and Asian diplomats, is China, a major military and economic ally. India and countries in Southeast Asia, which have tried to coax Burma out of isolation, could also exert some leverage. By contrast, the US and other Western powers largely shun the regime, leaving them with few diplomatic tools.

But hopes that China will arm-twist Burma's generals into making concessions to defuse the crisis are probably wishful thinking and run counter to Chinese political and business interests, say analysts.

Harder to gauge, say analysts, is how far the writ of such allies extends in Burma. "China has very little influence. It is stuck with an advisory role. The basis of Burma's policy has been to shut itself off," says William Overholt, head of RAND Corp.'s Asia-Pacific research center.

A broader question, with ramifications for dealings with Sudan, Zimbabwe and other regimes, is whether China will abandon its policy of noninterference and play a role closer to that of Western powers, even if it ultimately opts for engagement over opprobrium.

China has begun to adopt a critical tone on Burma, saying it hoped the Burmese government could "properly deal with its domestic social conflicts." Premier Wen Jiabao called Sunday on Burma to seek a peaceful solution. Breaking with protocol, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last week roundly condemned Burma, a member state, as did Japan, which said it was suspending major aid.

But in Beijing's eyes, propping up an unpopular regime on its borders may be preferable to seeing it collapse and risk being shut out by an unfriendly new government. "If the military government does not survive, a pro-Western regime will be established that would inevitably turn from China to the West for political and economic support," says Du Jifeng, a Burma analyst at the China Academy for Social Sciences.

The timing is awkward for Beijing. The Communist Party is gearing up for a crucial congress and wants a united front on policy choices, not dissension over Burma. The sight of peaceful protesters confronting an authoritarian state also has uncomfortable parallels, says Russell Moses, an analyst in Beijing. "Events in Burma raise the specter of peaceful political change in China, and that makes a lot of officials in Beijing nervous," he says.

Saturday, UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari arrived in Burma and flew to meet the country's leaders in their new, purpose-built capital north of Rangoon, where streets that were thronged by tens of thousands of red-robed monks and civilians were reported to be eerily silent, as troops blocked roads and patroled.

Gambari, who also met detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was dispatched to Burma following a UN Security Council meeting last week on the crisis. China blocked calls for a strong statement condemning Burma's repressive actions, the final text only urging restraint. China's UN ambassador Wang Guangya told reporters afterwards that the situation did not "constitute a threat to international and regional peace," the formal threshold needed for Security Council action.

President Bush last week announced more sanctions, including financial and visa restrictions on 14 senior Burmese leaders. But many are skeptical of the short-term impact of new measures. "Our sanctions are not going to affect the generals," says a senior US diplomat in Asia.

Isolated by Western opprobrium, Burma's rulers rely on trade and investment with Asian countries. China is in the spotlight – two-way trade with Burma doubled between 1999 and 2005 to $1.2 billion – but it's far from the only player. In recent years, India, South Korea, and Thailand have signed deals for natural gas and other resources. By deferring to China as a dominant diplomatic voice, other countries gain a smokescreen for their own interests in Burma, say analysts.

That was underlined last week as India's oil minister held talks in Burma as protests were peaking in Rangoon. India is vying with China to build gas pipelines from Burma's offshore fields to its energy-hungry cities, and its government has made little public comment on the crisis.

Similar reticence has long been the norm in ASEAN, which argues that "constructive engagement," not sanctions, can reform Burma's junta. Last week's bloodshed prompted ASEAN leaders to express "revulsion" and call on Burma to "seek a political solution," a far more robust formulation than on previous occasions.

Given its own political drama since last year's military coup, Thailand was caught flat-footed. Junta chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratglin, who met last month with Burmese counterpart Gen. Than Shwe, told Thai TV it was an internal affair.

Some politicians have called for stiffer action from ASEAN. "Burma should be expelled immediately," former senator Kraisak Choonhavan, an outspoken critic of the junta, told reporters. But, analysts note, ASEAN's new charter, due to be adopted later this year, has no clauses on expulsion or suspension after Burma and other members objected.

Staff writers Peter Ford in Beijing and Howard LaFranchi in New York contributed to this report.

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